Christian Smith, Notre Dame sociologist and author of some significant books on youth in North America’s churches, uses the term “moralistic therapeutic deists” to describe the default religion of our time. Christianity Today had an interview with Smith in their October issue, in which they discussed his new book on “emerging adulthood,” Souls in Transition. He’s got some really interesting things to say about young adults and the Church. I wish the book had been published earlier, as I’d already finished up my young adult project for the SA when Souls in Transition hit the shelves. For example, his typology of emerging adults might have got me thinking in different ways about how I might have summarized my interviews. He breaks down the population of young adults as follows (found on p. 36 of the print edition on CT but not in the online article):
- Committed traditionalists (15%)
- Selective adherents (30%)
- Spiritually open (15%)
- Religiously indifferent (25%)
- Religiously disconnected (5%)
- Irreligious (10%)
Maybe in another post I’ll speculate as to how these categories play out among young adults in The Salvation Army.
Right now I’m interested in this idea of “moralistic therapeutic deists”, because I think it is a great description of the default religion of our day. While Smith’s research indicates that some young adults are questioning the moralistic therapeutic deist framework, it still remains the dominant form of religious practice:
With Soul Searching, you found that most U.S. teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTD). They believe in a benevolent God unattached to a particular tradition who is there mostly to help with personal problems. Are emerging adults still MTDS?
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.
It’s good that today’s young adults are questioning popular religion, but the majority still practice their religion within a moralistic therapeutic framework. By “the de facto practiced religious faith” Smith means the “cultural Christianity” of North America, but we shouldn’t think that by this he means Christianity of “the culture” as opposed to Christianity found in the churches. It’s the pop Christianity of both Church and culture – not found in all churches but certainly preached and practiced in many. Moralistic therapeutic deism is the default framework through which Christians interpret their lives and their faith.
So what is “moralistic therapeutic deism”? (These are my thoughts, not Smith’s; I’m trying explain his terminology in terms of what I see in the culture.)
Moralistic: religion is basically about being a good person. This could be taken in a number of directions. For example, a moralist religion might envision God as rewarding “good Christians” for their good actions. They might support the popular notion that people who are basically good are going to go to heaven. This doesn’t mean that young adults believe in absolute moral standards. They are more likely to think of morality in relative terms, as this recent Knights of Columbus poll of Catholic millenials shows (82% say morals are relative). Yet somehow “being a good person” remains the foundation of religious practice, even while a plurality of competing moral visions are accepted. The problem with moralism is not that it supports a moral vision, but that it makes morality the foundation of religion, rather than the saving action of God in Christ. Salvation includes transformation, and of course it includes moral transformation. But our moral behaviour is the result of God’s action. God’s action does not come in response to our moral behaviour. North American churches are full of moralism.
Therapeutic: religion takes on the form of pop psychology. In other words, God is there to help me get through my day (see my reference to the personal assistant God in a previous post). Or, God is there to help me “reach my potential,” and “become a better me.” Religion as therapy is about personal fulfillment, and meeting “my needs.” God is domesticated and placed “at our service” as we journey on the road to personal “success” – whether that be in business, family life, or (as above) becoming a good religious person. This kind of therapeutic Christianity often takes the form of psychological strategies or practical “life skills” by which we can attempt to manage our personal lives.
[I do think salvation has a therapeutic dimension, but not in the contemporary psychological sense of therapy. Wesley’s soteriology is often described as “therapeutic” as opposed to forensic. This means that he saw salvation as entailing a process of healing as well as a declaration of justification. Salvation is not simply about being declared righteous in Christ, but about being conformed to his likeness and renewed in the image of God. This includes the re-directing of our desires toward their intended godly ends. The key difference here is that the “therapy” in this case is christologically determined, and not based on a program of “self-fulfillment.” In fact, “self-fulilment” would be the opposite of the divine therapy that the Spirit works in conforming us to Christ’s likeness. My daily “needs” are not necessarily right and good. Since I am totally depraved, I don’t actually know what my “needs” are. The things I think I “need” may in fact be deadly poison. The gospel doesn’t meet my pre-conceived needs; the “medicine” it provides also tells me what my true sickness is. God’s mercy never comes independently of his judgment.]
Deism: This is not the same as the deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centures, which saw God as an uninvoled creator, who got the ball rolling with creation and then just let the world take its mechanically determined course. Moralistic therapeutic deism involves a generic concept of God, unattached to a particular religious tradition. This God is benevolent and involved in creation, indeed he’s involved in the everyday ins and outs of our lives. But he’s a bit abstract. He’s the nice old guy in the sky. In other words, this deism is a far reach from the historic Christian proclamation of the particular God revealed in Biblical history.
I think we need to be constantly challenging this framework. Precisely because moralistic therapeutic deism is “the de facto practiced religious faith,” we need to hear again and again that it is not the historic Christian gospel. People come to their faith with this basic framework already in place, and if it isn’t challenged it will remain in place. Worse, if we tailor our preaching to moralistic therapeutic deism (which I think we often do, unwittingly), we perpetuate a vision of Christianity which is, in my view, foreign to the biblical message.
This is where I think sociological research like Smith’s can be of immense value. Sociology is a descriptive rather than a normative discipline. In other words sociology attempts to tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. It tells us how people behave, attempting to summarize patterns and, at times, discern causes of particular patterns of behaviour. The Church doesn’t take its direction from sociological trends, but from the authoritative witness of scripture. However, in understanding these trends, we can understand where people are coming from when they encounter the Christian message (including Christians themselves). If we know that moralistic therapeutic deism is the default religion of North Americans, and we know that it is contrary to basic aspects of the gospel, how can we not respond by challenging these default assumptions?
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